Why we should design for USE, not users

Let’s start with the obvious: like any software system, a web-based application is designed and intended to be used. What isn’t so obvious, however, is that the tried-and-true mantra of application design – that users are the center of the equation – may not hold water any more.

Now, before all you traditionalists get your panties in a bunch, let me explain. If you’re like most organizations, your project managers, designers and developers are pressed for time and are constantly being asked to do more with less. And if that’s your reality, then the biggest issue you face is figuring out what the main focus of your design and development efforts should be. And that focus is probably a little different than the one you know best and use most often.

Consider some specific problems with the traditional User-Centered Design (UCD) approach:


Features upon features upon features, interface buttons and menus and hyperlinks strung haphazardly across every square inch of real estate. Almost anything is possible – but people can’t figure out how to do anything. We recently read an article where Microsoft’s Chris Capossela gave a great example: “When we asked what users wanted in Office, nine times out of ten, they named something…already in the product; they just couldn’t find it.”

While listening to customers makes sense, it’s dangerous to accommodate every request. Doing so leads to massive complexity and cognitive overload that only increases with every revision.

Fear of a better mousetrap

Fixation on user opinion often leads to extremely conservative design. Products that repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, albeit in a prettier package. Like most people, users are often very hesitant when it comes to change. While they want new and better applications that help them do new things, they really don’t want to have to learn a whole new set of skills. They’ve been struggling for the last umpteen years to master the last version; so they want the new one to look and work just like the old one (never mind the constant complaining about how hard to use the old version is).

The truth is that users don’t always know what will really work for them. The reactions and impressions you get during usability testing or in feedback sessions is often very different from how people react or perform in real-world activities. Confronted with anything truly novel, they’ll look puzzled or or complain that it doesn’t look like Microsoft Office. On a previous project we tested, every subject complained that the screens were too “simple”. However, they all completed their work faster than before – with fewer mistakes. Going back to the drawing board every time someone complains only produces mediocre apps with marginally useful tools.

It’s a BIG world, after all

There are an awful lot of users. Not to mention that they’re all different; they want and like and react to very different things. We’ve watched teams run circles into the ground trying to redesign for every piece of user feedback on a prototype or usability lab session. The natural diversity among human beings  makes it all too easy to forget about their common needs and interests.

I’m not advocating a return to technology-centric design in which arrogance decided what was best and threw it at the masses. As web tools and technology continue to evolve – and the field of UX becomes increasingly relevant – we’re starting to see hard evidence that too much attention on users as people can lead developers and designers to miss the point: it’s not really about the users themselves.

Instead, it’s about what they’re doing or trying to do, in the context of the larger activities they’re involved in.

Focus on Use, Not Users

If we pay too much attention to people, we might overlook what it is they’re using the software to do. So while we may produce cool technology and innovative interface design, the product still fails if it doesn’t help people do what they need to. In order to develop products that truly help people do their jobs, we need to focus on context instead of content;  use instead of users.